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The World Bank's Lo-Tech Open Data Experiment

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, October 30 2013

Although the open data movement is associated with the Internet and tech-savvy types, an estimated 65 percent of the world's population remains entirely offline. As part of their ongoing push to open up development data, the World Bank has tested initiatives in remote communities to see how open data could be used offline.

The World Bank Group Open Finances program and the World Bank Institute's Open Contracting Partnership ran two pilot programs in small communities in Indonesia and Kenya. World Bank researchers Samuel Lee and Felipe Estefan have blogged about the Indonesia part of the experiment, and have published a draft of a white paper, “The Demand for Open Financial Data.”

In two Indonesian villages, each with populations of less than 1,000, the World Bank brought together various community groups to discuss development projects in the area:

Each group was asked about their preferences around how and what information should be shared. Conducted in Bahasa and Balinese, the group engaged in lively discussions on community priorities, assessed existing information and its potential use (including fields like project description, total budget, community fund allocation, number of beneficiaries), and participated in interactive ranking exercises.

The capstone exercise was making and disseminating posters that made the already-available data accessible and comprehensible for community members who had not attended the discussion.

It's easy to be skeptical of a project that results in something as rudimentary as a poster, but Lee and Estefan point out that project participants transformed “from passive receivers of information to active engagers” by interacting with data and sharing it with others. The experiment also disproved the theory that data is too complicated for consumption by regular citizens. They write that "A common knock against financial and contract data is that it is too complex or complicated for the average person to understand and process; however, this did not appear to be the case at the village level in Indonesia."

The biggest problem that was discovered, as Lee and Estefan write in their report, is that the data used in the programs in Indonesia and in Kenya had already been available, but almost nobody knew about it. The World Bank cannot step into every small offline community worldwide and guide them through open data discussion sessions. The problem now, say Lee and Estefan, is figuring out how to best distribute information in offline settings so that people who want to use it can also find it.

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